I’m not a huge fan of new year’s resolutions because I can’t keep them anyway – but I know that this year I have to make an effort when it comes to studying Chinese. The number of hours I physically spend in the classroom every week (currently 9) is not the issue. But reviewing, doing all my homework and memorising the characters need to start happening.
It’s been a year full of changes. There were 4 of us for about a year, then Amanda joined. Then Elisabete moved to Indonesia and Amanda moved to the States. Then Jesper Joined, Nadine stopped, DaXie moved up to level 5, Egle took a break and Henrique went onto study in Germany. There are only 3 of us left in class now. Jesper, Rebecca and I. Of the 3, I am by far the least studious and the most distracted by other activities. As a result of my poor preparation, I failed the last exam (HSK 3).
Where are we at?
We follow the HSK system. "The Hanyu Shuiping Kaoshi (汉语水平考试 translated as the Chinese Proficiency Test or the Chinese Standard Exam, is the standardized test of Standard Chinese language proficiency of China for non-native speakers such as foreign students and overseas Chinese". There are 6 levels in total and and we’re about halfway through level 4 – meaning that we’re likely to take the Level 4 exam this summer if everything goes well. On this level, pinyin is a thing of the past and we only read characters. When it comes to spoken Chinese, there are some days where I feel I’m not able to say anything and some days where I’m quite proud of the progress we've made. I’m able to get by in Beijing. I can speak to our Ayi (housekeeper) – and when I can’t, we use WeChat translate. I can introduce myself and say how long I’ve been in China, why we’re here and so on – and I can explain to taxi drivers where I need to go and ask for directions. However, when it comes to “deeper” conversations, I simply don’t have the necessary vocabulary yet. And I don’t practise enough!
Hopes for the future
I’ve been in China 3 years now and I came here with the intention of making learning Chinese one of my top priorities. If it hadn't been for my amazing classmates and our wonderful teacher Xin, I would most likely have given up ages ago. I hope 2019 will be the year where I give myself a kick up the backside and dedicate more time to learning Chinese. I am a linguist after all. 加油！
On Sunday we woke up to thick, polluted air. The app showed an Air Quality Index of 217 - which is in the "very unhealthy" category. My son and his friend had signed up for a 10 K run in Chaoyang park right where we live and I was wrong in assuming that the race would be cancelled due to smog.
As we entered Chaoyang park at 7 am, it was buzzing with life just like every morning. Elderly people flying their kites, doing tai qi, playing ping-pong, dancing - and hundreds of runners were making their way to the start line.
I have written about how pollution generally doesn't affect people's daily lives in Beijing. Going on as if it were the most beautiful day is very common. And probably very heathy for the mental sanity of Beijingers. At the same time. studies show that physical activity generally outweighs the harm of bad air pollution and I hope to write more about that soon. Apologies for this very short post. More coming up very soon - promise ;-)
"Doctor, my back hurts!" "Auricular acupuncture might be the answer!" My recent home-visit by a TCM doctor
My sitting bone has been hurting for quite a while and when I travelled from the States to China in mid-September, I was in total agony. I could basically not sit down. Upon my return to China, I went to see my doctor who suggested I start physiotherapy. After each session, I would feel better for 24 hours – and then the pain would come back. At 1250 RMB per session (almost 200 euros – of which roughly half is covered by my medical insurance) I decided it was worth-while ty try other forms of treatment. My pilates teacher Sabina told me about a TCM (Traditional Chinese Medicine) doctor who does house visits and after a quick exchange of messages on WeChat, I made an appointment that same afternoon.
He started off by looking at my ears for about 5 minutes. Not inside my ears – but outside and explained that a lot can be understood from the ears. Then he asked me a number of questions about things like my sleep pattern, digestion etc.
He did not touch or massage my back at any stage – and I admit that I was dying for some magical cracking – but I kept an open mind as he suggested that we do cupping (placement of small, heated glass jars that create suction in order to relieve muscle tension, promote blood and lymph circulation and detoxify). Although I had had good results with cupping in the past, I kindly declined this time – simply because it leaves big red/blue marks on your back for about a week – and I was leaving for a beach holiday the next day. Vanity won – again.
Doctor Qu decided to use acupuncture first. He placed 2 needles in each leg and one needle in each arm. When acupuncture needles go in, you do not feel any pain. But when the doctor moves and twists them to detect the nerve pain, it hurts!
Next thing he took out a package of tiny metal spheres (also called auricular seeds) and started pressing them one by one into the cartilag of my ears. It wasn’t too painful – although my ears became burning hot and red once he had pressed all 22 spheres into my ears. He told me they would stimulate various points of my body and particularly my spleen. He then instructed me to touch the pearls as much as I could over the next few days in order to stimulate further.
You can check out this youtube link to see how the spheres work https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=72sQktS9RiU
Once the acupuncture needles were out, he placed a sticky herbal patch on my lower back. The patch needs to be heated up with a hairdryer in order to become soft and sticky. You need to take it off before showering – and then it can be reused three times.
Finally, I was given some herbal painkillers (Tong zheng capsules). I was instructed to take 4 tablets twice a day.
Did it help?
I suppose I was hoping for a miracle but the doctor did warn me that I might not see any improvement after one treatment. I must be honest: I did not feel any improvement at all and I did not follow doctor’s orders – something I am not proud to admit.
It was too uncomfortable to sleep on the side (as I usually do) with all the magnetic seeds in my ears. So I took them out after 24 hours. I also took off the patch – and again I forgot one important instruction: Bring tape so that you can get the residue off your back! I forgot so I ruined a new bikini completely after I had tried to scrub the sticky, dark brown mass off my back.
Finally, I just took the tablets twice – simply because I forgot.
I’m already in contact with Dr. Qu for a new appointment. I want to see if cupping will help me. I think one needs to be in the right mood when trying TCM. You need to believe in it, bear in mind that it's not a quick fix - and try to understand the culture behind it. I am ready for take two - with an open mind.
At the South-Western corner of Chaoyang park lies Park Apartments. A compound* like so many others in Beijing - but different. Many of Park Apartments' residents (including myself) chose this compound because of its location and great facilities (which I've described before on my blog) but it turned our that it came with the added bonus of a tight knit community. As residents we come together to lend a helping hand (or a pound of sugar), network, exchange DIY tips, look for playdates for our kids, advertise events, share our frustrations about the somewhat famous Chinese Chabuduo maintenance-style - and last but not least, we party together.
We're lucky to have a bar area in the lobby and we hold regular "come-and-meet your neighbours" potlucks for the grown-ups - but the kids also get their fair share of fun at the annual trick or treating at Halloween and egg hunt at Easter.
The glue that holds our community together is... (you guessed it) WeChat!
I'd like to show you some snippets from our conversations.
* a compound can be anything from a gated community to a high-rise building. Often with a high concentration of expat residents.
As you may know, I don’t go shopping a lot in China. And by that I mean I don’t physically walk into shops (despite having a gazilion shopping malls at my disposal). I’ve told you about my taobao addiction before so I thought you might want to have a look at my latest online purchases. The news is that I am now also using Baopals which is Taobao BUT IN ENGLISH! Absolutely brilliant!
Going back to China after 7 weeks in Europe: What I’m bringing back to China and what I wish I could bring.
A year ago, almost to this date, I told you how I felt about going back to Beijing after a long summer in Europe. Last year, I focused on the emotions - whereas this year, I'll take you right back down to earth and tell you what’s in my suitcase.
The things I have bought in Europe - and the things I wish I could bring back to China.
(Apologies for the layout on mobile phone)
In my suitcase:
What I wish I could bring:
A former runner reports from beyond the finish line: my trip to Hubei with a group of foreign runners
The first weekend of June 2018, I travelled with a group of foreign runners (including my husband) to the Hubei province. Purpose: the 2018 Mountain Marathon Series - Tenglong Cave Cup (a mountain marathon) . I joined for moral support, for a visit to Hubei, for a new experience - and admittedly also for the chance to write a piece about foreign runners and their participation at races and trails here in China.
My reportage from beyond the finish line was published by South China Morning Post last Sunday. https://m.scmp.com/lifestyle/health-wellness/article/2157108/trail-races-remote-parts-china-make-expats-ambassadors
Here are some additional pictures which I hope you'll enjoy.
December 2015: I had left behind my friends, colleagues and life in Belgium to move to China where my husband had been posted. The kids started school 10 days after we arrived. With my husband at work and the kids at school, I was free to explore Beijing – something I had been looking forward to for months. I quickly found a daily rhythm and I thoroughly enjoyed the adventure of living in Asia. But I missed my friends terribly. And that’s how I learnt the first of many valuable lessons in China: without friends, we are nothing.
Even for an extrovert like me, it takes a big, deep breath to walk into a room full of people I don’t know. But whether you’re an expat in China or you’ve just moved to the village down the road in our home country, finding friends tends to be the all-important step that’s required in order to make us thrive - so we have no choice but to get on with it. And get out there.
Here is how I recommend meeting new friends in Beijing – or at least what worked for me:
Hands down the best decision I’ve made in terms on finding friends. It took a couple of school/teacher changes but the bond my classmates and I have is very special. For the purpose of finding friends (and not getting bored out of your mind), I always recommend group classes rather than individual lessons.
Music has always been an important part of my life and I had barely landed in Beijing before I started looking for a musical outlet. I quickly got up on stage at open mic evenings (especially at Paddy O’Shea’s Irish bar) but it took me some time to find a group to join. Thanks to the WeChat group “all the singing ladies”, I came across “Jing Sing”. An a cappella group that sounded like…well, music to my ears. I auditioned in August 2016 and Jing Sing has since become one of the most important things in my life in Beijing - just like some of my best friends in Beijing are from Jing Sing. I love singing and my husband loves running! Soon after we arrived, he joined “Hey Running” and China has taken him to new heights. As an ultra/trail runner, he gets to explore this country with newfound, likeminded friends.
When you’re new to a place, you rely not only on your own proactiveness but also on other people’s friendliness. I was lucky enough to be invited to join several groups shortly after we arrived in Beijing but I am particularly grateful to two groups who took me under their wings. Namely “The Bikers” – a lovely group of expat women and fellow moms whom I met through my kids’ school - and the very active and super nice Italian women’s group.
Did you recognise that phrase from the title song of the Australian sitcom Neighbours? We were lucky to find a fantastic compound in Beijing that not only offers good housing but also a close-knit community. I have made some very good friends at Park Apartments.
If you have kids and they attend an international school in Beijing, chances are that there is a wide array of activities for parents on offer. Whether you become involved on a daily basis, volunteer for events or choose to show up to the occasional coffee morning, you will have plenty of chances to meet other parents and make friends with them.
Due to the language barrier, it is difficult to find Chinese friends unless they speak English – meaning that your potential Chinese friends are likely to be young and with a good understanding of foreign cultures. I appreciate my (few) Chinese friends very much and I want to thank them for letting me bombard them with questions about Chinese culture (and language) and for occasionally letting me use them as sources for my blog posts and articles.
Making friends takes time. But once you make it beyond the small talk at coffee mornings, parties or outings, you will soon find out whom you really click with and whom you have something in common with. I often find comfort in the feeling that we are all in the same boat. Most of the people I meet and interact with in Beijing are foreigners who, like myself, have started from scratch here. Chances are that we have more in common that meets the eye.
In May this year, I turned 43 and my husband had arranged a surprise party for me. As I stood there on a Sanlitun rooftop terrace, grinning from ear to ear, I looked around and realized that a mere 2 ½ years ago, I had no idea that the many friends who were there to celebrate me even existed. Long live changes of scenery and new opportunities. Long live new friendships and the certainty that you’ll keep the old.
When it comes to getting around in Beijing, I find that one tends to become more and more courageous as the months and years go by.
When we were new to the city, hailing a taxi and praying that we’d be able to communicate with the driver, was hard enough. Then our bikes arrived from Europe and we launched ourselves into the madness of Beijing traffic on two wheels. By then, we were still convinced that buying a car was a silly idea - yet in October 2016, the ol’ Volvo became part of our lives.
Transport is not a problem in Beijing. You can always get from A to B quite easily. When we want to avoid traffic, we take the subway. When we want to sit back and relax, we order a Didi (private taxi), biking feels like the most natural way of commuting and when we move as a family - especially outside the city, we take the car. However, in a city of 25 million inhabitants, there are situations where you need to get somewhere quickly and avoid traffic at the same time. Where the subway would seem like the ideal solution, you often have to walk far within the stations to change lines.
So I went and got myself a scooter. Or rather; my husband made the final decision for me and surprised me on my birthday with a brand new Niu. One of China's most popular electric scooter brands.
Here it is. Goes up to 40 K/hour, can drive up to 50 K on a full battery, is completely silent (which can be dangerous as cyclists can't hear me and we share the same bike lane). But all in all an extremely convenient way of getting around Beijing.
(Published by Global Times, Metro Beijing section on 19 April 2018)
What do you do when you have an important decision to make? You may choose to ask your friends and relatives for advice, weigh your options on your own or perhaps make a list of pros and cons. But one Beijing based family took to an untraditional method when it was time for them to decide whether to leave Beijing – and where to.
Victoria and Sam have been in Beijing for 3 years together with their two children aged 8 and 6. In early 2018, they had to decide whether to stay in Beijing, move back to America – or consider a third option. “Identifying your criteria for a happy life is never easy” says Victoria “so we had to think of a way that would allow us to take everything into consideration”. When the family moved to Beijing – their first posting abroad – they thought they would be moving back to New Jersey when the contract ended but as it became clear that there were other options, deciding where to go after Beijing was no longer that easy. When Sam suggested basing their decision on an algorithm, Victoria was slightly sceptical at first but the couple agreed that such a pragmatic approach was worth a try. “We used an excel spreadsheet to write down possible options of where to live and criteria that were important to us. As simple as that” she smiles. They considered the school for their children, family spirituality (the ability to practise their Christian faith), finances, work opportunities, personal safety, health – and finally contact with the middle eastern culture (Sam was born in Egypt and Victoria has Palestinian roots). They looked at options for potential places to live and the places they put on the list were Princeton (New Jersey, US), Bayonne (New Jersey, US), Shanghai, Arab countries, Virginia (US) and finally staying in Beijing.
On a scale from one to five, Beijing scored highest on a number of areas such as family unity (dynamics and quality time), personal safety, finances, career and convenience of life. At the same time, it scored lowest on family spirituality and the contact with the middle eastern culture. Shanghai got the exact same score as Beijing. Although moving to an Arabic country may have brought the family closer to their roots and religion, personal safety as well as finances and career would have been a concern in that part of the world. The family knew the quality of life would be fairly high in both Virginia and Bayonne, New Jersey and although the race between the two locations was close, Bayonne ended up with the highest score. A winner had been found. But home may very well be where the heart is – and not where the spreadsheet says it is. The family has decided to move to Princeton instead. Interestingly enough, Princeton was the family’s base before they moved to China. They are about to move back to the house they own there and in many ways, they will take up where they left off. Victoria and Sam could very well become trendsetters for their out-of-the-box approach but in a time of technology, algorithms and big data, the formula for a happy family life may lay in our gut instinct and our emotional connections after all.
Thank you to our lovely friends and neighbours Victoria and Sam! We will miss you - but see you in Princeton ;-)